For most of us westerners, traveling is a right of passage, a part of our youth. We take our strong dollars and our mighty pound sterlings and we throw it at airlines, hotels, hostels and tour companies (and not to mention, lots and lots of bars). Locals will ask you, ‘where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?’ And you will tell them, I’m following the trail of banana pancakes, Bahn Mis and coconut water through South East Asia. They will nod, uncomprehending. I always like to ask, ‘so have you ever travelled?’ Most of them say no. Some of them say ‘yes yes, to Saigon’, the next city over. And when I ask why not, of course they say ‘not enough money’.
Tourist guilt was beating strong for me in Laos, especially in Luang Prabang. There were signs everywhere that read: ‘cover up in Laos, revealing clothes are offensive’ (in decidedly broken English). I even found one sign that advised backpackers to wash and keep clean because their smell is offensive (it’s a fair comment, let’s all agree to shower more guys…) and everywhere I went, I felt angry eyes on me. I avoided shorts and kept my tops cleavage-free but still, every time I booked a tour, bought a sandwich, bartered at a market, I felt the resentment. I read a tourist info sheet in the back of a menu at a bar that warned against bartering. ‘For you, it’s a dollar or two, taken away from people who can rarely afford the healthcare when they get sick.’ I never bartered again in Laos.
Even in Thailand, there was evidence of the same frustration. At the Chiang Mai Festival of Lights, the masses were huge and heaving, filling the streets, suffocating. A beautiful festival became complete chaos when tourists relentlessly released their lanterns from 6pm, ignoring laws stating that everyone had to wait until 9pm, because of flight paths. A perfectly logical and fair time scale. But of course laws don’t apply to tourists. The big white man can do whatever he likes, wherever, right? So the lanterns filled the sky on and on all evening, to the mad distress of Thai people everywhere.
The hardest part is the pure fact that I often agree with their hatred. I would resent me too. These people seem to work every day of the week (hence their lilting pace of life) and here we all are, swanning over in our short shorts, ruining their sewers with out ignorant tissue flushing and getting incredibly dangerously drunk in their rivers. We rub our holidays in their faces, and they have no choice but to try and at least make money out of the fact.
Which brings in my conflict about tourist guilt. Because yes, we piss off the locals with our carefree expenditure, but we also give them business. These countries are becoming more and more developed because we buy their beers, their boat rides, their private beach resorts.
So I guess this makes it a love hate relationship. My philosophy? Don’t be a dick. You’re in someone else’s country? Respect their rules. Make an effort with the locals, put your trash in the bin, don’t take the piss when you’re arguing a price. There are some amazing places in the world and it would be so easy for tourists to ruin them all…